Things were easier for Andy Reid when things were black or white, before he discovered all these darn shades of gray.
Eleven years ago, in his first season as head coach here, Reid didn't care for the way a veteran player behaved after an ugly road loss. Defensive tackle Bill Johnson was summarily released after that 33-7 thrashing at Carolina. The move shocked and angered many of Johnson's teammates, who liked and respected him and suspected he was being used as a scapegoat.
"I guess they were looking for a fall guy," said Johnson, who never played in the league after that.
Reid didn't care what Johnson thought. He cared what Brian Dawkins and Jeremiah Trotter, Tra Thomas and Donovan McNabb learned from the incident. The rookie head coach was trying to establish a winning culture around a team that had won just five of its last 25 games. So he didn't hesitate to take a short-term hit - whacking a reliable defensive lineman - if he thought there was a long-term gain.
It was easy then. Black and white. Reid's way or the highway.
Eleven years later, Reid was every bit as disturbed by his team's approach to Sunday's loss in Chicago. The focus of his ire, DeSean Jackson, is in no danger of getting waived. Instead, he received waves and waves of praise from his conciliatory coach.
"One of the elite wide receivers in the National Football League."
"A tremendous football player."
"People know how good he is."
"Two of the most competitive guys on our team [along with Michael Vick]."
"I love that he loves the ball."
All of this gushed from Reid in the space of a few minutes Tuesday. After tearing into his team in the postgame locker room Sunday and meeting with Jackson Monday, the coach was determined to smother his high-strung young wideout with purple prose rather than a pink slip.
Of course, Jackson is in a different stratosphere from Johnson as a player. Even the 1999 Reid would not have gone so far as to release a player as young or as gifted as Jackson. That's not the point.
The point is that there is no one left on this team from those early, culture-building days. Reid has taken it on faith that his ways would be passed down from veterans to rookies, and that was pretty much the case for a decade.
But this is a very, very different team after all the roster turnover of the last two years. The exodus of cornerstone players like McNabb, Dawkins, Thomas, and Jon Runyan created a little break in the continuity here. The new high-profile stars - Vick, Jackson, Asante Samuel, Jason Peters - seem to be cast from very different molds. The veterans came of age elsewhere, the younger guys have mostly seen a mellower, more easygoing Reid.
Until Sunday, that is. The reappearance of the Raging Bull Reid must have been a shocker, like a department-store Santa suddenly reading the riot act to the kids waiting in line to tell him their Christmas wishes.
Reid's original persona - firing Johnson, making guard George Hegamin push a blocking sled while the media watched - has long since given way to a more genial one. Age and life experience have taken some of the edge off him.
The trouble is, this edition of his team has no institutional memory of the rigid, absolutist Andy.
And frankly, he has had a special soft spot for Jackson. It is impossible to imagine the '99 Reid bending as far as the current coach has for the talented but temperamental receiver. That lighter approach was rewarded with two superb seasons. Now Reid has the tricky task of reeling Jackson in a bit without breaking the line and losing him altogether.
It has been a complicated year for Jackson. If the NFL were conducting business as usual, with labor peace established, the Eagles would have given Jackson a long-term contract extension by now. Not only is he playing for a fraction of his market value, he has had a couple of scary injuries that reinforce the urgency of getting that payday. Meanwhile, Jackson's numbers are down, and on Sunday he short-armed what would have been a touchdown pass - a sure sign of a player who is thinking too much to be at his best.
After a salty reaction Sunday, Reid was back to syrup Tuesday.
"Man, he wants [the ball] and he wants it now and he wants it in crunch time," Reid said. "There are a lot of guys that would climb under this table in crunch time. He wants the ball. I like that, it's a beautiful thing. I'll take care of everything else, man, I love that part."
Somewhere, Bill Johnson is wondering who this Andy Reid is.